Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau were the first two picks in the 1997 draft. They’ve played a couple thousand games in teal. They’ve both been captains, and both stripped of the “C” for perceived leadership failures and criticisms that for however good their Sharks were, they were never quite good enough to go all the way. Neither had ever made it to the Stanley Cup Finals. This was a celebration for the old guys.
San Jose came out strong in their 5-2 Game 6 win over St. Louis—Marleau notched two assists and Thornton one—and the third period felt like a victory lap on home ice, in front of fans who have seen so many handshake lines, many of them filled with promise (only the Blackhawks have won more playoff series than the Sharks since the 2004-05 lockout), but none of them that really felt like an accomplishment.
“The fans here have waited so long, 25 years,” Thornton said. “We’ve waited 18 years or so. So it’s a great feeling.”
“I can’t put it into words because I can’t imagine,” Sharks coach Peter DeBoer said of Thornton and Marleau.
“I can’t imagine, because all I’ve seen them is the year I’ve spent with them and how hard these guys work every day, how committed they are, how badly they want to win. I don’t think that’s changed over the last 10 years. I just think for whatever reason it hasn’t come together. So I can’t imagine the stuff written about them and said about them that they’ve had to deal with. It’s a great night for those guys.”
Thornton is, amazingly, still tearing it up at age 36, centering a knockout top line and doing things no one at any age ought to be able to do. Marleau, also 36, has lost a step, but he’s no veteran mascot. This postseason he happily accepted an assignment as third-line centerman, which has done wonders for both the Sharks’ depth and the scoring power of their top two lines. Maybe he’s just happy to be here: he played 1,411 regular-season games and 165 games before reaching his first Cup Finals, both NHL records.
DeBoer mused about how things hadn’t “come together” before, and I think that’s a nebulous but pretty damn accurate way of describing what happened this year. There were no huge moves for the Sharks—the first-round pick they gave up for goalie Martin Jones last summer was the closest thing to a splash—but rather the acquiring and emerging of complementary pieces around the core. Jones, Joel Ward, and Paul Martin have shored up some cracks, and young homegrown players like Tomas Hertl and Joonas Donskoi are solid top-six guys on any team. But what makes the Sharks such a fascinating roster is that they’ve had so much regular-season success, even preliminary playoff success, with the same players for years now. Marleau, Thornton, Pavelski, Couture, Vlasic, Burns: they’ve been through this and kept running up against that hump. The stars finally aligned to get over it—or at least partially.
This is the feel-good part, and it lasts about a day, until the Sharks know who they get next. Because as nice as this is, it’s only such an accomplishment because it’s new territory for San Jose. There’s still a series to go, and one more chance for a season to end with a loss.
Peter DeBoer, who would know from his unsuccessful 2012 Finals trip with the Devils, told the jubilant locker room to “enjoy this, but as soon as tomorrow comes, forget about this and move on,” as Logan Couture relayed it.
“This is not the end goal,” Joe Thornton said. “I’ll tell you that right now.”